US-backed Iraqi security forces closing in on the ISIS-held western half of Mosul launched a major offensive on the city’s airport and fought their way into a nearby military base on Thursday.
Federal police and an elite interior ministry unit known as Rapid Response stormed the airport and engaged in gun battles with the ISIS fighters, who used suicide car bombs to try to stem the advance.
Police officers told that the police and Rapid Response forces had taken control of large parts of the airport.
Other officers said the militants deployed bomb-carrying drones to attack the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces advancing from the southwestern side of the city.
“We are attacking Daesh (the ISIS) from multiple fronts to distract them and prevent them from regrouping. It’s the best way to knock them down quickly,” said federal police captain Amir Abdul Kareem, whose units are fighting near Ghozlani military base.
After ousting the militant group from eastern Mosul last month, Iraqi forces have sought to capture the airport to use it as a launchpad for an onslaught into the west of the city.
The campaign involves a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite militias and has made rapid advances since the start of the year, aided by new tactics and improved coordination.
Losing Mosul could spell the end of the Iraqi side of terrorists’ self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared from the city after sweeping through vast areas of Iraq in 2014.
US special forces in armoured vehicles on Thursday positioned near Mosul airport looked on as Iraqi troops advanced and a helicopter strafed suspected the ISIS positions.
Counter-terrorism service (CTS) troops fought their way inside the nearby Ghozlani base, which includes barracks and training grounds close to the Baghdad-Mosul highway, a CTS spokesman told Reuters.
The airport and the base, captured by the ISIS fighters when they overran Mosul in June 2014, have been heavily damaged by US-led air strikes intended to wear down the militants ahead of the offensive, a senior Iraqi official said.
The US military commander in Iraq has said he believes US-backed forces will retake both of the ISIS’ urban bastions, the other is the Syrian city of Raqqa, within the next six months, which would end the jihadists’ ambitions to rule and govern significant territory.